Agency and worldviews of the unconquered Lacandon Maya

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University of Illinois-Chicago Explorers trekking through the rainforests of the southern Maya lowlands during the Colonial and Republican periods encountered large numbers of Maya who they described as unconquered, non-Christian people. Many of these Maya were Lacandon,1 who lived in scattered settlements throughout lowland eastern Chiapas, México, and adjacent Petén, Guatemala (Figure 13.1). They were Yukatek-speaking Lacandon and not the Ch'olti-Lacandon from the time of the initial conquest of the lowlands in the sixteenth century. The explorers' accounts of the lifeways of these free Maya closely match the ethnographic descriptions of the Lacandon from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The ancestors of the contemporary Lacandon had largely escaped Spanish Conquest and colonization, but outside contact had shaped their lives since the Colonial period. More than likely, Lacandon culture formed during a period of intensified inter-indigenous interaction in the lowlands following the conquest. Contact between displaced Maya populations, intermarriage between Maya groups, and inter-indigenous trade for European goods in free Maya territory led to inter-ethnic Maya acculturation and the ethnogenesis of Lacandon culture. A large part of the southern Maya lowlands remained in Maya hands until the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At this time, settlers, explorers, loggers, and missionaries entered the remote lowlands in unprecedented numbers and came in contact with the Lacandon. Subsequent to this culture contact, the waves of conflict, disease, and missionary activity affected Lacandon society. However since they lived in autonomous Maya territory, the Lacandon reacted to their changing world within their cultural milieu and for indigenous interests. Epidemics, acculturation, displacement, and fighting affected the Lacandon at this time, but they survived this "Second Conquest" by escaping further into the forest, resisting contact and change, and regulating outside trade to acquire items of cultural and economic importance. Specifically, some settlements were wiped out, other Lacandon joined missions, and many avoided outside contact except briefly to trade goods.Despite the uneven effects of culture contact and native responses on different Lacandon settlements, some generalizations regarding Lacandon society and beliefs during the late conquest of their territory can be made. The advantage in this case study is that comparative information from history, archaeology, and ethnography is available for the study of Lacandon Maya worldviews. Because of the rich comparative data sets, native worldviews are a common theme in historical anthropology and archaeology (Dowson 1998; Kirch and Sahlins 1992; Rogers 1990). According to Christopher DeCorse's (1998:364) discussion of culture contact and social change in West Africa, the "noneconomic factors such as shared beliefs, cosmology, religion-in short, worldview-in delineating the form, character, and import of African-European relations" have not been sufficiently considered. DeCorse later demonstrates that economic, social, and religious factors are combined to form an evolved or adjusted worldview on the heels of contact and culture change. These beliefs are the central themes and interpretations regarding worldviews addressed in this chapter. Lacandon views of their natural and supernatural realms and their place in them following the conquest are examined. Specifically, I will cover Lacandon perceptions of outsiders, beliefs concerning foreign trade goods, sacred landscapes, and religious survivalisms, all of which were shaped by culture contact and forged through indigenous agency. Continuities and changes in Lacandon worldviews followed indigenous norms that were maintained in autonomous native territory that remained a colonial frontier.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMaya Worldviews at Conquest
PublisherUniversity Press of Colorado
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9780870819452
StatePublished - Dec 1 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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